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Town of Greece v. Galloway

Town of Greece v. Galloway

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Published by Tony Meyer
U.S. Supreme Court decision
U.S. Supreme Court decision

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Categories:Types, Legal forms
Published by: Tony Meyer on May 05, 2014
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05/05/2014

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1
(Slip Opinion)
OCTOBER TERM, 2013 Syllabus
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as isbeing done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has beenprepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See
United States
 v.
 Detroit Timber & Lumber Co.,
 200 U. S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Syllabus
TOWN OF GREECE, NEW YORK
v
. GALLOWAY
ET AL
.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT No. 12–696. Argued November 6, 2013—Decided May 5, 2014 Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance,and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed ina local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds,nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too. Respondents, citizenswho attend meetings to speak on local issues, filed suit, alleging thatthe town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause bypreferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sec-tarian prayers. They sought to limit the town to “inclusive and ecu-menical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God.The District Court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity; concluding that the Chris-tian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantlyChristian character of the town’s congregations, not an official policyor practice of discriminating against minority faiths; finding that theFirst Amendment did not require Greece to invite clergy from con-gregations beyond its borders to achieve religious diversity; and re- jecting the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the prayer pro-gram, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity.
Held:
 The judgment is reversed. 681 F. 3d 20, reversed. J
USTICE
 K 
ENNEDY 
 delivered the opinion of the Court, except as toPart II–B, concluding that the town’s prayer practice does not violatethe Establishment Clause. Pp. 6–18.
 
 
2 TOWN OF GREECE
v.
 GALLOWAY Syllabus (a) Legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been un-derstood as compatible with the Establishment Clause.
Marsh
 v.
Chambers
, 463 U. S. 783, 792. In
Marsh
, the Court concluded that it was not necessary to define the Establishment Clause’s precise boundary in order to uphold Nebraska’s practice of employing a legis-lative chaplain because history supported the conclusion that the specific practice was permitted. The First Congress voted to appointand pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses have maintained the office virtu-ally uninterrupted since then. See
id.
, at 787–789, and n. 10. A ma- jority of the States have also had a consistent practice of legislative prayer.
Id.,
 at 788–790, and n. 11. There is historical precedent forthe practice of opening local legislative meetings with prayer as well.
Marsh
 teaches that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted“by reference to historical practices and understandings.”
County of  Allegheny
 v.
 American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter
, 492 U. S. 573, 670 (opinion of K 
ENNEDY 
, J.). Thus, any testmust acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers andhas withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether the prayer prac-tice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures. Pp. 6–9.(b) Respondents’ insistence on nonsectarian prayer is not con-sistent with this tradition. The prayers in
Marsh
were consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a generic theism but because the Nation’s history and tradition have shownthat prayer in this limited context could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” 463 U. S., at 786. Dic-tum in
County of Allegheny
 suggesting that
Marsh
permitted only prayer with no overtly Christian references is irreconcilable with the facts, holding, and reasoning of
Marsh
, which instructed that the “content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,” provided “there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to prose-lytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”463 U. S., at 794–795. To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts decid-ing these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater de-gree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither ed-iting nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. Respondents’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive.It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies asa generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permis-
 
 
3 Cite as: 572 U. S. ____ (2014) Syllabus sible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and governmentmay not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from the prayer’s place at the open-ing of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the oc-casion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations have been addressed to assembliescomprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion,even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers deliveredin Greece do not fall outside this tradition. They may have invoked,
e.g.,
 the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes,
e.g.,
by calling for a “spirit of cooperation.” Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible gov-ernment purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a par-ticular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation. See 463 U. S., at 794–795. Finally, so long as the town maintains a policyof nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to searchbeyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort toachieve religious balancing. Pp. 9–18.J
USTICE
ENNEDY 
, joined by T
HE
C
HIEF
J
USTICE
 and J
USTICE
 A 
LITO
, concluded in Part II–B that a fact-sensitive inquiry that considersboth the setting in which the prayer arises and the audience to whom it is directed shows that the town is not coercing its citizens to engage in a religious observance. The prayer opportunity is evaluatedagainst the backdrop of a historical practice showing that prayer hasbecome part of the Nation’s heritage and tradition. It is presumedthat the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition andunderstands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceed-ings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of manyprivate citizens. Furthermore, the principal audience for these invo-cations is not the public, but the lawmakers themselves. And those lawmakers did not direct the public to participate, single out dissi-dents for opprobrium, or indicate that their decisions might be influ-enced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. Re-spondents claim that the prayers gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected, but offense does not equate to coer-cion. In contrast to
Lee
 v.
Weisman
, 505 U. S. 577, where the Court found coercive a religious invocation at a high school graduation,
id.,
at 592–594, the record here does not suggest that citizens are dis-suaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or making a later protest. That the prayer in Greece is deliv-ered during the opening ceremonial portion of the town’s meeting, not

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